“Competing for Attention”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 29, 2016
Luke 7:1-10 & 1 Kings 18:20-21, 22-29, 30-39
The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal from 1 Kings bothers me. It bothers me a lot, actually. The more I poured over the story this week, the more I wanted to push it aside and focus on how Jesus healed the servant of the centurion. In the end, it is a whole lot easier to find the good news of God in a healing story than it is in a story about prophets trying to prove who has the better god. I thought about it, prayed about it, even asked God to tell me or show me that it was OK to preach on the healing instead of the prophet’s contest. However, I did not get a response, at least not from God. Instead, I am left with a story that bothers me and a strange impulse to find out why it bothers me so much.
So I started my exploration with the facts. The book of 1 Kings begins with the death of David and ascension of his son, Solomon, to the throne. At the time, Israel was one kingdom living under one king. Solomon was known for his wisdom, which he received after praying to God. Solomon was also known for his visions of grandeur to build a temple for God on earth. The first nine chapters of 1 Kings are about Solomon building the temple for God. Solomon had a lot of work to do to accomplish his vision. First, he had to surround himself with builders, craftspeople, architects, and suppliers so that every detail of the temple would meet his expectations. The cedar used to frame the temple came from Tyre, a journey that would have taken months; a stone quarry was dug near the temple so that Solomon could watch each stone being cut. The inside of the temple was covered in thick layers of pure gold, and instead of mosaics of tile, Solomon had the golden walls covered in jewels from all over the world. After eleven years, the temple was completed.
Solomon was proud of himself for what he had accomplished. So proud, in fact, he began to use commercial and economic practices that we might say were less than ethical. Solomon hired and fired advisors depending on whether or not they supported his plans; he used slave labor to build himself a palace; he abducted women from conquered tribal lands and enslaved them to be his wives. Solomon’s most heinous act of pride was to build a temple to Chemosh, the god of the Moabites, who he thought was the cause of his great fortune. The Lord was not pleased with Solomon and tried over and over to bring Solomon back to the right way. But Solomon continued in conquest to gain wealth and power. This wise, faithful servant of God had been tempted by the gods of the world and had fallen down in worship to them.
The story goes south from here. The Lord was so angry with Solomon that he sent military and political adversaries to challenge Solomon. Solomon dug in even harder, to the point that while his kingdom was literally tumbling to the ground around him, he was still clinging to the throne. After forty years as king over Israel, Solomon died; ashamed, hated, pressed in on every side from those who wanted to take his position, his power, and his wealth.
There was no smooth transition of power after Solomon died. The Northern tribes of Israel, so displeased with their government, succeeded from the nation. The North and South warred against each other, claimed that they were the true nation of Israel, and lived under kings who worshipped many gods. Over the course of the next 100 years, nine kings ruled over Southern Israel, and 11 kings ruled over Northern Israel. No king stayed in power long enough to do anything significant, but each, in their own way, took the nations further and further away from God.
The worst of the kings was Ahab, who ruled over Northern Israel about 800 years before Jesus. He was the worst because he destroyed all temples and murdered all people with any attachment to the one God of Israel, who had brought them out of Egypt so long ago. Ahab married a woman from the greatest enemy nation of Israel, and built a temple in Jerusalem to the fertility god Baal.
Then enters a man of God named Elijah, sent by God as a warning to Ahab. Ahab would not listen. God was so unhappy that he caused a sever drought to touch every part of the land, leading to a famine that no one could escape. Ahab would not, did not, listen to Elijah, but continued to worship the god Baal and do as he saw fit with women, with the smaller tribes around Israel, and with all the wealth and food he had even though his nation was starving to death.
So whose god is the right god, the true god? 450 prophets of Baal claimed that Baal was the right god, the true god; one prophet, Elijah, claimed that God—the God who created all things—was the right god, the true god. A contest was called to settle the dispute.
The contest was much more than a way to determine whose God was better. This contest was the working out of national anxiety that took hold of Israel after the death of Solomon. With all the trouble that had touched the nation, all the death and destruction, all the terrible leaders who had sat on the throne, and all the disunity and separation, the nation was asking many questions. Who is God? What can this God do for us? Is there even a God? Asking these questions led many to turn their backs on God, to run after other gods, those of fertility, agriculture, and war. These foreign gods promised great wealth, great power, great national pride. Who doesn't want those things? Why worship the God of Israel when these gods make promises that are so attractive? When the prophets of Baal called on their god to consume the sacrificed bull with fire, nothing happened; when Elijah called on God, fire rained down from heaven, consuming the bull and everything around it. Elijah won. The prophets of Baal did not.
On one side you have a prophet who won, a man whose God answered his prayers and rained down fire from heaven. Everyone wants to be a winner, myself included. And when the winning is done with God on my side, there is nothing that can or will stand in my way. When it turns out that my God is bigger and better than your God, there are not many lengths I won’t go to to prove it to you or have you submit to it. There are not many things I won’t do to make sure you get on board with my and my God, whether my understanding and belief in God is right or not.
This story bothers me because it makes me think of all the wars, all the conquests, all the theft and denial of life that has been done throughout history in the name of God. All of it grows from the seed of belief that my God is better than yours. That seed grows into the weed of religious triumphalism. Religious triumphalism puts the stamp of God’s will on any human desire, plan, or idea, without any concern for whether or not it meshes with the actual will of God. It has led to the extermination of ethnic and religious others. It has led to the expulsion of native and tribal people from lands that were rich in resources. It leads to all-out fear and hatred for anything that is different or difficult to understand. It leads me to consume and participate without much concern for what impact I’m having on the earth, its resources, or its people. And most sadly, religious triumphalism is all wrapped in me, what my God can do for me, what I can get from the god at my fingertips. Religious triumphalism leaves no room for concern for my neighbor, their needs, or how I might be the face of Christ to them.
On the other side, you have prophets who lost. No one wants to be a loser. Not a single one of us here today wants to be on the losing side, the underdog, or the one who has been turned away because their god did not show up. No one likes being called a loser or told that they are wrong or that they put their trust and faith in something totally false. We are never taught how to lose graciously, and we are not taught how to lick the wounds of loss gracefully. All of it is exacerbated when such loss is tied so closely to religious belief or matters of faith.
This story bothers me because it reminds me, that oddly enough, the actions and reactions of those on the losing side of the equation are similar to those who have won. It is interesting to me that the act of loss creates a vacuum where rage, hatred, and extremism grow. This is what many scholars say is happening all over the Middle East right now. After decades of military and religious defeat, a vacuum has been created where religious and political extremism has grown into a mighty force. It is the same vacuum that has been created in our nation where certain populations, ethnicities, and economic groups have been defeated and decimated for so long; after a while, the emotion and sense of loss grows and grows until it erupts in places in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland. All of the same tactics of submission and oppression that the winners use to control the losers are the same tactics that the losers use to throw off the shackles of the winners. And, again, its all about me, what I want, what God can do for me.
The whole idea that there are winners and losers in the economy of God is screwed up, especially when stories from the Bible further this idea. That’s what bothers me about this story. And it bothers me because I’m all over it; I’m in the story, I’m living as the characters do, I’m feeling the same things they are. Sometimes I’m on the winning side because my God showed up, rained down fire from heaven, and proved to be real. When this happens I’m prepared to fight for God, to go toe to toe with anyone who says otherwise; when I know that God is on my side, there is not much that can or will stand in my way. Then other times I’m on the losing side, like the prophets of Baal, just staring up to heaven waiting for God to show up. And when I feel like a loser, I’m still ready to go toe to toe with anyone who challenges me, and I’ll do whatever I have to in order to get through whatever is standing in my way. Unfortunately, in both cases, there is little to no regard for the people around me, for the needs of world, or for how I might be twisting the message of faith to fit my plan and desires. In both cases, someone is going to get hurt. In both cases, God is not glorified. In both cases, nothing is being done to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.
So where did I land after this exploration, of the text and of myself? Well, I landed right back where I always do when I’m confused, scarred by sin, utterly disappointed in my actions, and lacking any useful or meaningful faith: at the feet of Jesus Christ.
And that is right where I need to be. You see, I need to be at the feet of Jesus Christ because there is so much competing for attention in my life—the god of this, the god of that, the god of whatever catches my attention—and I need him to bring me back to the one God of all. I need to be at the feet of Jesus Christ so he can remind me that God is not about winning or losing, but about keeping the promise to never leave or abandon me. I need to be at the feet of Jesus achrist because sometimes I get so wrapped up in winning or losing, politically or religiously, that I forget the humanity, the decency, the dignity that I am called to embody. I need to be at the feet of Jesus Christ because it is there that I can confess: confess how I have made a mess of things, confess how I have coopted the Scriptures to mean what I want them to mean, and confess how I have used God as a weapon, and then hear that I have been forgiven and shown a better way. I need to be at feet of Jesus Christ to confess that at times I don’t know what God is doing, where God is working, or what God is saying through the Scriptures; sometimes I need to confess that I have failed to see God in other people. At Christ’s feet I hear and know that God is way bigger than my confusion, lack of vision, or lack of knowledge. I need to be at the feet of Jesus Christ because it is there that I can say, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,” and know confidently that Jesus is still going to show up, still going to act, still going to heal and comfort and guide—not because I’m worthy, but because of his great love for me. And I need to be at the feet of Jesus Christ to be told over and over that it is not about me, none of it, and that the more I focus on me the less I will see of God. At his feet I hear over and over that if I want to live, I must give up my life and follow.
Maybe that's where you need to be today, so I invite you to join me there, at the feet of Jesus Christ. Come and sit at his feet and lay down your desire to win, your pain and suffering from loss, and your misconceptions of God. Lay down the ways that you have retracted in fear and used your faith for violence instead of peace. Lay down all the things that bother you, all the things that are competing for your attention, and everything you use to distract you from the world all around. Come and sit at the feet of Jesus Christ and confess that you’ve gotten it wrong, that you’ve made the wrong choices, that you’ve hurt someone, and that you’ve chased after whatever got your attention at the moment; then listen as Christ speaks pardon over your life. Lay down everything that is standing in your way of having a true relationship with God, and lay down whatever fears or anxieties you might have of what will happen when you enter into a relationship with God.
Come and sit at the feet of Jesus Christ, lay these things down, and take up the grace and love of God, take up the life that God is offering to us all in Jesus Christ. And then go. Go, love and serve the Lord and your neighbor. Amen.